Seattle Seahawks

No Sherman, Thomas, Chancellor, Bennett, Avril. Yet this year’s Seahawks defense is largely better

This is no time for we-told-you-sos.

Not while staring down a quarterback gauntlet of Philip Rivers, Jared Goff, Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton the next four games.

“Oh, my goodness,” coach Pete Carroll said of the Seahawks’ next four weeks, tests against those elite quarterbacks with the Chargers (5-2) on Sunday, at the Rams (8-0) next week, then against the Packers (3-3-1) and at the Panthers (5-2).

“I’m not looking at it much, but I know it’s out there.”

Yet even with so much more to do, one of two remaining stars from their Super Bowl past remaining on the Seahawks’ changed defense is not surprised that theirs is a top-five unit in the NFL.

Bobby Wagner... well, he told you so. Back in August.

“Not at all, I’m not surprised at all,” the All-Pro linebacker said Wednesday. “I think we knew kind of coming into the season that we had a great group of guys. We knew that the outside was sleeping on the leadership that we had in the building and the people that we had in the building, some of the guys that are still here as well as the guys that are kind of sitting behind the players that are playing.

“We knew that people didn’t see that, and that they would see that. So, if you listened to us talk, we were very confident in what we were going to get accomplished and what we were going to be doing.”

The Seahawks (4-3) are indeed doing. They have won four of their last five games. The loss was by two points to the Rams, the league’s only unbeaten team. The Seahawks are still frustrated at that game, believing they should have won.

They are pressuring quarterbacks. They are locking down on receivers with jarring hits to separate receivers from the ball, what’s become a specialty for strong safety Bradley McDougald on third downs. They are stealing away turnovers, like Justin Coleman’s marvelously athletic interception at the sideline near the goal line late last week at Detroit.

Coleman
Seahawks nickel defensive back Justin Coleman (28) reacts after his interception of Matthew Stafford’s pass at the goal line intended for Lions and ex-Seattle wide receiver Golden Tate late in the Seahawks’ win at Detroit last weekend. Rey Del Rio AP

They have 16 takeaways in seven games. Their plus-10 turnover margin is second-best in the NFL.

All this without long-gone stars Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Sheldon Richardson from last year’s defense.

That one finished 17th in the NFL in total defense last season. Seattle went 9-7, and missed the playoffs for the first time in six years.

This Seahawks defense has new starters in eight of the 11 positions. Yet it is ranked fifth in total defense almost halfway through the 2018 season. Seattle is fourth in pass defense. It is tied for fifth with 10 interceptions (four fewer than the “Legion of Boom” had all of last season) and fourth in points allowed per game (18.7) .That’s more than two points better than the Seahawks did last year, when they 13th in points allowed.

It’s almost like it’s Carroll’s system, or something.

Wagner thinks those fifths and fourths can be firsts with his young, aggressive defense that is now whole with Wright’s return. The Pro Bowl weakside linebacker made his season debut last weekend after knee surgery in August. He played 50 of 59 snaps as Seattle mostly dominated the previously roaring Lions offense in Detroit.

“Where we’re sitting is good,” Wagner said, “but there’s a level that I think we can get better. The first few games, even up until now, we were still trying to learn how to play with one another, learn how to have fun with one another. Now, you’re seeing the product of that last game and I think it’s still room to get better. We got K.J. back, bringing him into everything.

“We lost a lot of guys. But there is a lot of guys left in the building that know how to win football games.”

Guys like Jarran Reed.

The third-year defensive tackle and second-round choice in the 2016 draft is an overlooked Seahawk. That’s by nature of his relatively anonymous position and job: tie up blockers, plus rushing lanes and free Wagner and Wright for most of the tackles. It’s also by nature of Reed’s nature; he doesn’t always say much, at least to the media.

But this season he’s speaking loudly. His 21 solo tackles are two short of his career high for a season, from last year. He’s playing the most snaps of his career, with Richardson gone in free agency to Minnesota.

Reed is a main reason the Seahawks held Detroit and Kerryon Johnson, a rookie-of-the-year candidate, to 34 yards on 13 carries last weekend. Detroit basically stopped trying to run after halftime, already down 21-7 in its 28-14 loss.

The week before that, the Lions ransacked Miami with 248 yards on the ground, 158 of those by Johnson. He had 22 against the Seahawks.

Carroll says Reed’s become a more vocal and follow-my-example leader for young Seahawks defensive linemen such as undrafted rookie Poona Ford and third-round pick Rasheem Green. Reed is echoing the directives of defensive line coach Clint Hurtt and coordinator Ken Norton Jr., as if Reed was a seasoned veteran.

“The experienced guys setting the tone and the expectation of what it takes and how we have to go about the details of it because run defense in particular, it’s always about discipline,” Carroll said. “That’s repetition, clear expectations of what you want and the standards you set. And then the way that the repetitions go will allow guys to learn how to do their stuff...

“The point really gets hammered home when your leaders make that point clear and they stand for it. That’s Bobby and K.J. and J. Reed and those guys. They’ve done a great job to set things in motion.”

Reed a leader? At age 25, just halfway through his rookie contract? That’s how changed this Seahawks defense is. So far, for the better.

Reed wants the haters to keep hatin’.

“I want everyone to keep that same energy they had before. Whatever they were talking about before, leave it that way,” he said before Wednesday’s practice. “We don’t need anyone jumping on now. We are going to keep playing the way we’ve been playing.

“We don’t need no accolades. We don’t need no glow. We don’t need none of that.

“Oh, yeah. All of ‘em. We heard, seen all of them. It comes from everywhere. Some people didn’t expect this. Now? You know how it goes. People will be wishy-washy sometimes. But we had faith in ourselves, from the beginning.”

Thing is, for this younger, improved Seahawks’ defense, the beginning is now. It’s Rivers, Goff, Rodgers and Newton.

It’s with McDougald instead of Chancellor at strong safety. Tedric Thompson at free safety instead of Thomas, who is ending his Seahawks contract and tenure on injured reserve. Converted college safety and rookie Tre Flowers with second-year man Shaquill Griffin at cornerback.

And so on.

Their development is about to accelerate even more against these next four quarterbacks.

“I think it just takes time. You let the guys come in and be who they are,” Wagner said. “I think the mistake that you can make is trying to size them up and trying to compare them to the people that left. Maybe a B-Mac comes in and he’s playing Kam’s position, and you want him to look like Kam. But there’s only one Kam. There’s not going to be another Kam, so you can’t do that.

“You have to appreciate the person that’s stepping in and see what in his game makes them special that is going to make the team special and try to bring that out. Everybody has something special in them, all across the board. I think the job for the leaders and for the people that’s been there is to let them figure out how to make this defense special by finding what’s special in them. I think that’s what we did, we just encouraged to be yourself. I think we take pride on learning who people are and I think that’s kind of where the growth is.

“We don’t expect you to be the people that left. We expect you to be the person that you are. The best version of yourself is always going to be the best for this team. That’s what we focus on.”

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